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Water Woes

Statistics show effective planning is required to make clean drinking water available to a large number of people

Beenish Kulsoom

World Water Development Report, issued by UNESCO, estimates say 1.1 billion people are without sufficient access to water, and 2.4 billion people have to live without adequate sanitation. The report says about 3 billion people of a population of 8.5 billion will suffer from water shortage by 2025. Eighty three percent of them will live in developing countries, mostly in rural areas, where some 20 percent of the population have access to sufficient water supply. The world over, only six percent of global freshwater is used by households, while 20 percent is utilised by industry and 70 percent by agriculture.

It is estimated that 2.4 billion people suffer from water related diseases, and the World Health Organisation estimates that 80 percent of all infections are traceable to poor water conditions. About 5,483 people die daily of water-caused diarrhoea – 90 percent are children under five. The world picture is dismal, and amidst such a scenario one wonders that how does Pakistan fare in providing drinking water to its people? Below is the discussion on current drinking water scenario in the country, its regulation and management; and finally a look at the current National Drinking Water Policy which is approved in September, 2009.

Pakistan is dangerously water stressed. The World Bank in its special report in 2006 stated that Pakistan is falling down from ‘water scarce’ to becoming a ‘water stressed’ country and within a decade it shall be a ‘water famine’ country! Water scarcity threshold is defined as below 1,000 m3/person/year. Whereas water threshold is defined as renewable water resources below 1,700 m3/person/year. World Water Development Report states ‘total actual renewable water resources in Pakistan [have] decreased from 2,961 cubic meters per capita in 2000 to 1,420 cubic meters in 2005’.

Water withdrawals for agriculture is the hightest; of 169.384 billion m3 of water withdrawn in 2000, the proportion of withdrawals by agriculture was 96 percent followed by industry and domestic used at 2 percent each. Roughly, about 90 percent of water resources are used for agriculture purposes, whereas some 36 percent of groundwater resources are classified as highly saline.

Withdrawals by agriculture is also mired with ineffeincy in crop yeilds. For instance, sugarcane cultivation consumes greater amount of water in comparison to other cash crops such as wheat and rice, on the contrary sugarcance yeild and sugar production is dismal.

UNESCO ranks Pakistan’s water quality at 80th out of 122 nations. A 2009 report by Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Asia Programme, notes ‘around 40 to 55 million Pakistanis – about a quarter to a third of the country’s total population – do not have access to safe drinking water. In much of urban Pakistan, water is contaminated and waterborne disease is rife. Media reports suggest that nationwide, 630 children die each day from the waterborne illness of diarrohea; most of the diseases in Pakistan are water-borne. The Pakistan Council of Research and Water Resources (PCRWR) assesses that 40 percent of all reported illnesses are water-related. Water-borne infections and parasitic diseases account for 60 percent of infant deaths in our country.

On the contrary, estimates regarding expenditures for water and sanitation differ between 0.14 and 0.16 percent. For instance, at the federal level during the fiscal year 2003-2004, Rs 491 million were spent, whereas the provincial governments spent Rs 4.176 billion for water supply and sanitation. This is less than 0.5 percent of all expenditures during that fiscal year, and compared with Rs 180.5 billion or a 20.8 percent share for the military budget.

The Human Development Report 2006 ‘Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis’ reasons that low performance in human development in many developing countries owes much to unfavourable expenditure in human development programmes, and life-saving investments in water and sanitation are dwarfed by military spending.

In Pakistan, there is no independent regulator to manage water resources. There are various government departments involved in creating, managing and planning water resources. However, coordination and linkages between these various departments is problematic.

Water is used for manifold purposes, from power-generation, agricultural production, and to industrial and domestic consumption. For each level of water usage, various government bodies under respective statutory roles are assigned specific duties to perform.

The Ministry of Health plays an important role in setting water quality standards, in monitoring and controlling drinking water quality in urban and rural areas. The PCWR on the other hand is an ‘apex autonomous body established with the objective to conduct, organise, coordinate and promote research in all aspects of water resources (source:

Amongst other functions of PCWR; it is also mandated to advise the government and submit policy recommendations regarding quality, development, management, conservation and utilisation of water resources; design, develop and evaluate water conservation technologies for irrigation, drinking and industrial water; and initiate national water quality monitoring programme, in the urban and rural areas of Pakistan, and develop technologies for providing safe drinking water to the public.

Rural drinking water supply schemes are one example where rural areas of the country have little access to drinking water; though, the situation is also not very encouraging in the urban areas. However, one must not forget that the fragile balance between rural and urban areas ensures stability and harmony in the country; while also checks mass population movements towards urban areas.

A sub-divisional officer from PHED, District Khushab, tells TNS on the condition of anonymity that drinking water schemes are invariably ‘politically motivated’, and in most of the cases, the department has to fulfil its statuary responsibility; to “enact and construct drinking water supply scheme(s) announced by the elected leaders.”

Elected government representatives use their political influence favourably in their respective constituencies and in favour of people who voted for them. And, on the contrary, people belonging to other groups seldom get access to public services.

This phenomenon is ubiquitous across the country; and to top this skewed scheme of affair is the declaration of development schemes by federal and provincial governments based on the population density. The federal government decides provincial share, and accordingly each province decides upon the development schemes amongst various rural and urban areas.

The government of Pakistan has approved National Drinking Water Policy in September, 2009. The policy “recognises access to safe drinking water as a basic human right of every citizen, placing responsibility on the state to ensure its provision”. One of the specific targets includes safe drinking water to 93 percent of the population by 2015. The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that population should have access to drinking water at a distance of one kilometer from the place of their dwelling.

Our progress on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that only 90 percent of population has improved access to water source, however, this does not reflect on the quality of water source. To make mockery of affairs, one is left perplexed upon finding the state of district and tehsil level water filtration plants.

Report by Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars chronicles that in 2007 Rawalpindi’s Water and Sanitation Agency announced that 64 percent of the city drinking water supply contained human waste and used water — and that 70 percent of the city’s water supply lines carry sewage water to consumers. In 2008, the Pakistan Council for Scientific Research determined that more than two million people in Peshawar drink contaminated water. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that only 3 out of 100 industries using hazardous chemicals in Lahore treat their wastewater adequately.

Looking at specific targets of the National Drinking Water Policy, one wonders as to how will the state implement programmes to achieve these targets. There are departments, and agencies formed one after another, but no detailed plan is developed for creating linkages, coordination and cooperation amongst the various stakeholders.

Daily The News

December 13, 2009